There are unmistakable signs that the BJP is falling into what might be called a “power paradox” trap. A power paradox is a situation where political dominance can, paradoxically, reduce your actual power to shape and guide society and economy. The BJP’s political, electoral, institutional and rhetorical dominance continues unabated. But the government seems to be increasingly at the mercy of social and economic undercurrents it is finding hard to control.
This situation is not unprecedented. Both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, at the height of their electoral dominance, also presided over periods where social and economic cleavages sharpened. These cleavages are of both kinds: Communal and ethnic cleavages, on the one hand, and the revival of agitations like farmers’ movements, etc., as we are seeing in Mandsaur, on the other. We may be an entering a new phase of this politics.
A simple personalised explanation for this is that political dominance begets hubris; therefore, rulers get out of touch without realising it. But there is perhaps a deeper paradox at work in the relationship between politics and economics. Those who acquire dominant control have a fantasy that political control can translate into mobilisation control of the economy.
This government has some important legislative achievements like the GST to its credit, and in some areas, like infrastructure creation, it has settled into a competent mode. But the impact of these reforms will be felt in the long run. In the meantime, the government is being held responsible for a sputtering economy — those who think the downturn will not produce social conflict have their heads in the sand.
The latest growth figures suggest a slowdown in the first quarter of this calendar year. Long-term drivers like gross capital formation and private investment indicate no cause for optimism. The kind of structural break this government had promised with past economic performance is a distant gleam. But the fact that confidence in the economy is not soaring three years into the regime is politically exacerbated by the fact that this government’s dominant political style is selling its own omniscience and omnipotence. This had three elements — the first is an unprecedented mobilisation of citizens for state projects. Demonetisation was the prime example of this. We still don’t have a full reckoning of the effects of demonetisation. But even its supporters would be hard-pressed to deny that in particular areas of the country, especially where cash crops are important, demonetisation has had disruptive effects. This seems true of the areas experiencing farmers’ agitations.
But the economically disruptive effects are one thing: There is also a sense that the political bargain inherent in the politics of total mobilisation has not yet materialised. Any possible gains from demonetisation are still too distant and diffuse, and less likely to compensate those who suffered most in the cause. So, an economic governance style founded on hyper-mobilisation will at some point be experienced as a betrayal.
The second element of building a dominant political coalition is the constant need to buy the loyalties of more groups. The general supposition is that political domination might enhance the capacity of the state to manage and resist demands placed on it. But often, the opposite happens — the process of extending political domination also unleashes expanding demands on the state. Loan waivers have been used in the past; they were also an essential element of the BJP’s economic strategy in Uttar Pradesh to broaden its base. It is hard to believe that the BJP did not know this would lead to similar demands elsewhere. The contagion effects of a demand in one state are enhanced when the same party rules more states. So, paradoxically, the broader the party’s social base, the more it is relentlessly seeking to expand, the more it may unleash unmanageable demands on the state. The curve of economic and social expectations can shift upward with political dominance. This is why so many politically dominant coalitions come to grief.
The third element in the limits of political domination is the perennial question of agriculture. Whatever the improvements in different parts of the country, this is still a sector deeply vulnerable to constant and adhoc shocks by the state and market. Most farmers still do not see a credible framework in place that insulates them against these shocks. On the one hand, the government has promised targets of doubling farmers’ incomes, new irrigation schemes, insurance, and so on. But framers are reeling under multiple uncertainties — in the case of some crops, prices collapsed; the government’s approach to imports and exports have been adhoc in a way that may benefit the consumer but penalises the farmer.
In short, while there are a range of interesting proposals on the table, there is no framework that credibly addresses questions of equity, security and productivity in agriculture. Which is why the politics of agriculture is subject to constant tussles between the farmer and the state. It has never been easy for any regime, from Indira Gandhi to Narendra Modi, to neutralise and manage the pressures of agrarian demand politics.
The decimation of political opposition may, at first glance, give the ruling party carte blanche to do whatever it wants. But there is also a real danger that as the opposition gets electorally decimated, a large number of social cleavages, grievances, discontents that were routinely channelled through political parties, now search for new outlets and social movements. You can sense simmering discontent, a discontent made all the more disquieting by the fact that it is struggling to find even discursive space — in fact, by denying the legitimacy of these grievances, whether on demonetisation or agriculture, by attributing criticism to conspiracy, the state sharpens the conflict. But the more dominant a political coalition, the more likely that state and society will now be directly pitted against each other.
So, you have the paradox. A politically dominant government becomes hostage to forces it cannot control. Its success has made it hostage to the worst elements within the party. The cultural right wing is demanding its pound of flesh (if not now, when?, is the argument). The constant need for political mobilisation has altered the structure of economic demands and expectations and will create new conflicts. And having sold the rather debatable proposition that political domination is a necessary condition for economic regeneration by the government, it is struggling to match, for the moment, the performance of UPA 1. Political domination, by conjuring visions of omnipotence, creates the seeds of its own destruction.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor, ‘The Indian Express’